New observations from the Hubble Space Telescope have revealed the hidden hosts feeding vampirelike blue straggler stars, strange objects that appear to stay uncannily young-looking instead of growing into old red giant stars.
When an aging star exhausts most of its fuel, it balloons outward into a huge red giant. But in a cluster of stars that formed at the same time, some will look eerily young: While the stars' contemporaries are bulky & cooler, they remain trim with a hotter, bluer light as if they're getting infusions of new fuel. So blue straggler stars obtain their name because they "straggle" behind the typical star life cycle.
A group of astronomers surveyed 21 blue straggler stars in a cluster approximately 5,000 light-years away to determine their youthful secrets. The Hubble Space Telescope was able to spot evidence of orbiting white dwarf stars that contributed mass to many of the stragglers. Â [AmazingÂ HubbleÂ Space TelescopeÂ Photos: Latest Views]
Scientists have known approximately these blue stragglers since 1953, yet the source of their extra fuel has remained a mystery. Researchers suspected they might be in a binary systemÂ â€” two stars which orbit each other closely â€” where one star siphons material off its partner star. But the mechanism wasn't certain. They could moreover have merged with other stars or collided with unlucky victims.
A 2011 studyÂ surveyed the star cluster NGC 188 to investigate its blue straggler population, & now follow-up observations from the Hubble Space Telescope have revealed the ultraviolet signatures of white dwarf stars locked into orbit with seven of the blue stragglers. An additional seven show other evidence of mass transferring from another star, although white dwarfs haven't been spotted.
"Until now there was no concrete observational proof, only suggestive results," Natalie Gosnell, an astronomer at the University of Texas, Austin, & lead author of the new work, said in a statement. "It's the first time we can place limits on the fraction of blue stragglers formed through mass transfer."
For approximately two-thirds of the blue stragglers surveyed, this research confirms this mass transfer process. The more massive star in a binary system swells into a red giant, overshadowing its companion â€” yet then, its mass is siphoned away by the companion star. The balance shifts as the companion star glows hotter & brighter with the extra mass until only the small, dense stellar core remains of the first star â€” it collapses into a white dwarf. Viewers from Earth see only the blue straggler as a single, unusually bright & hot star.
The researchers sniffed out the white dwarfs' presence by detecting the stragglers' movement back & forth, caused by orbiting with another star, & verified it by identifying a bright ultraviolet signal with Hubble. Only signatures from the youngest, hottest white dwarfs can be detected that way, yet the binary systems found will add to researchers' understanding of how stars grow & alter in such systems.
It's extraordinary how much we know approximately how single stars evolve, yet our knowledge of how binary star systems work is incomplete, Robert Mathieu, an astronomer at University of Wisconsin-Madison & study co-author, said in another statement. (Mathieu moreover worked on the previous survey of this star cluster.) Blue stragglers are only one of the mysterious characters researchers need to scrutinize.
"For the evolution of single stars like our sun, by & large, we received it right, from birth to death," Mathieu said. "Now we're starting to do the same thing for the one-quarter of stars that are close-orbiting binaries. This work allows us to talk not approximately points of light, yet approximately the evolution of galaxies, including our own Milky Way. That's a huge deal, & getting it right is an even bigger deal."
The new work was detailed Dec. 1 in The Astrophysical Journal.
Email Sarah Lewin at email@example.com or follow herÂ @SarahExplains.Â Follow usÂ @Spacedotcom,Â FacebookÂ andÂ Google+. Original article onÂ Space.com.
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